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Backyard mangoes

A farmer urges homeowners to try cultivating the fruit

By Wanda Adams

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LAST UPDATED: 02:01 a.m. HST, Aug 04, 2010


Mark Suiso has heard the mango tree story more times than he can count: how Grandpa faithfully tended the family mango tree, the one that yielded so much fruit and whose branches shaded so many family events. When Grandpa died, they tell him with a hint of booga-booga awe in their voices, the tree died, too.

Sometimes it's the other way around: The tree dies, and shortly later, Grandpa, who planted it 70 or so years before, dies.

"They are tied together -- the tree is almost part of the family," said Suiso, who tends 70 mango trees on his Makaha Mangoes plantation and brokers mango sales for other Makaha-area part-time farmers.

But in the past couple of decades, backyard mangoes have not fared well. Many have been cut down: Busy homeowners complain of too many leaves to rake or have cleared the trees in order to expand the family home to accommodate multiple generations.

Others get rid of mangoes because the trees grow overlarge, develop diseases, stop bearing fruit. Still others would love to have a mango tree but fear they don't have room, or don't know how to care for them.

This saddens Suiso and other proponents of backyard gardening. Mangoes and other produce shared over the back fence were one way neighbors bonded and built community, Suiso said.

"People got to know each other because they had stuff to give away," he recalled.

And homegrown food isn't just a nicety; it supplements the family budget. "I hear people saying, 'I never thought I'd have to buy a mango,'" Suiso said.

FAMILIES OF MANGOES

Mangoes originated in southern Asia but have proliferated throughout the warm-weather world. Broadly speaking, they fall into two families:

» Plump, fleshy, firm-textured mangoes, often developed in the New World to yield smoother, less stringy fruit. These often travel well for commercial use.

» The elongated, flattish mangoes of Asia and India often have pronounced flavors with hints of turpentine. Some are meant to be eaten green.

OTHER VARIETIES

» Tommy Atkins: Mild-flavored, long-traveling; the No. 1 commercially grown mango in the U.S.

» Rapoza: Flesh melts in the mouth

» Nam Doc Mai: Thai mango, often eaten green but sweet when ripe

» Karashige, Mapulehu and Sugai: All forms of common mango with sweet fruit

» Golden Glow: Late-season local mango with coconut flavor

» Turpentine: Very juicy, powerfully flavored South American mango

Another trend that has Suiso not saddened, but steaming, is covenants levied on some planned neighborhoods that forbid the planting of fruit trees deemed eyesores, interfering with "sightlines." Some even rule against backyard gardens.

"This is so shortsighted," he said. "You can actually landscape beautifully with edible plants. It's amazing how much food you can get from a small space. We spend all this money on hiring landscapers to grow things you can only look at."

For Suiso, food plants, and particularly fruit trees, are the "soul" of a garden. Besides, "if you can grow your own food, you feel more independent of the chaos that we're going through right now," said Suiso, whose daytime job is financial counseling.

He has answers for every excuse:

» Tree too big? Nurserymen can teach you how to prune trees back and manage them; you can even find instructional videos on YouTube.

» No yard? There are dwarf varieties so small -- bush-size -- they can be raised on a lanai.

» Can't decide on a variety? Graft several varieties onto one tree.

» Can't seem to make a tree grow in your yard? You might be planting the wrong variety for your microclimate; elevation, rainfall, shade and soil type all play a role. Experts can assist in finding the right fruit type for your area.

» Don't know much about mangoes? You're living in the right time. There's been a flurry of new interest in the fruit. Universities and extension services such as those in Florida have began to focus on the home grower in developing varieties. Mango festivals, such as the one this weekend at the Moana Surfrider Westin Resort & Spa, are proliferating; there will be both beginning and advanced mango-growing seminars. Nurseries can help, such as Frankie's Nursery in Waimanalo, which specializes in small trees and container trees, as can agencies such as the Pearl City Urban Garden Center.

» Got no green thumb? You can still participate in the local mango revival by being a consumer of home-grown mangoes. Insist on Hawaii fruit at your neighborhood supermarket. Shop the farmers markets to support local growers. Learn the characteristics of the local varieties and then let the farmers know what you favor.

Said Suiso, "The person who has a mango tree has friends."

Food writer Wanda Adams contributes a monthly feature on island foods and foodways. Learn more about her work at ourislandplate.com.






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